ESPN: Shouldn't we cheer a Rhodes Scholar as much as the next Heisman Trophy winner?
Editor's note: Carl Ehrlich was the captain of the 2009 Harvard football team.
Leading up to Saturday night's Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City, the story around the presumed winner, Auburn's Cam Newton, feels a bit odd. Rather than the award Newton is likely to receive, the American media is more consumed with what his father, Cecil, is rumored to have already received. Six voters announced earlier that they didn't cast their ballots for Cam because of the investigation into his recruitment, and some in the media seem to be applauding this "valiant" stand.
Why? Why, Joe Sportsfan, do we care about the allegations surrounding Cam Newton? Presumably, it's because the Newton family might have solicited money from the schools interested in his football skills, and because taking money is against NCAA rules.
This makes some sense. But if the money is a problem, then why don't we change the rules so we can legally pay our players? You would think that paying our athletes might alleviate some of the financial incentives toward corruption, but sports fans everywhere will jump down your throat at the mention of paying college athletes. Their reasons?
The purity of collegiate athletics.
The sanctity of amateurism.
The value of the scholar-athlete.
Oh, if only that were the case. If only we cared about the mission of the NCAA half as much as we claim to. If we're serious about celebrating the scholar-athlete, we'd be talking about Baltazar Zavala a lot more than a couple of duffle bags full of cash that Pastor Newton might or might not have received.
You remember, Baltazar, don't you?
Three weeks ago, Baltazar ("Zar" to his friends, a group of which I'm a proud member) experienced the greatest 15 minutes a college athlete can have. They began when Zar, a third-string wide receiver for Harvard University, and his teammates on the Crimson secured a 28-21 comeback victory over Yale in the 127th playing of The Game.
As he jumped around on the 50-yard line and celebrated a win in the last football game of his life, Zar's fiancé interrupted with big news: He had won the Rhodes Scholarship. Hearing this, Harvard coach Tim Murphy scooped him up and brought him into the post-game news conference. He didn't play a single snap in The Game, but Zar, the most unassuming college athlete you'll ever met, suddenly found himself the subject of articles in The Associated Press, the Boston Globe and (so long as this column gets published) on ESPN.com's Commentary page.
But do you care? Or are you still more interested in the speculation about Cam Newton? I'm guessing it's the latter.
Don't get me wrong. When I watch college football, I'm not looking for the sanctity of the parenting institution. I watch for the entertainment value. I look for big hits, freak athletes and dominant players; and from that perspective, Newton is the man to watch. If you need any more convincing, take another look at his 49-yard touchdown run against LSU, in which he ran over an LSU defenseman, stiff-armed a second, juked a third and a fourth, then beat the fifth in a foot-race to the goal line.
Normal people don't do these types of things. Athletically, Newton is far from normal.
Zar isn't that far.
I'm not writing this to persuade people that Zar is half the athlete that Newton is. No one on earth could make that argument. Newton, a five-star recruit, is 6-foot-6, 250 pounds and moves like the wind. Zar Zavala, a Harvard walk-on, is a 6-1, 185-pounder that winds are likely to move. To say that Cam vs. Zar is like men playing against boys is unfair to men everywhere.
But that's exactly why we should care about Zar. He isn't the greatest example of a pure athlete, but he may be the greatest example of pure athletics. Zar's college career represents way more of what's right in the NCAA than the Newton allegations represent what's wrong.
I say this, first of all, because he won the Rhodes Scholarship. It's the greatest honor a college student, let alone athlete, could ever receive. A combination of academics, athletics, selflessness and leadership qualities, the Rhodes recognizes everything we should be looking for in a college athlete.
You do look for these things in a college athlete, right?
Past Rhodes Scholars include Grammy Award winners (Kris Kristofferson), Noble Prize Laureates (Lord Howard Florey), and presidents of the United States (Bill Clinton). Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Bradley was also a Rhodes Scholar, even if attending Princeton shows a lapse in character.
Maybe the problem is that Zar's greatest moments can't be put on a highlight tape. Getting nailed by a safety while catching a scout-team pass doesn't captivate an audience. You can't "posterize" an exam. Icing down a post-operation knee while nose-deep in a neurology textbook isn't going to make SportsCenter's "Ultimate Highlight" anytime soon.
Unfortunately, people would rather watch a clip of Pastor Newton walking across a parking lot.
The real question is not, "What did Cam Newton get paid to play football?" It's, "What reason does a kid like Zar have to keep playing?"
This is a question he battled with himself, and an issue the two of us discussed two summers ago. E-mailing me from China (he was doing an internship in the neurology lab at Shanghai's Fudan University; he wants to be a neurosurgeon), Zar told me he tore his meniscus and wasn't sure if he would be playing again.
Put yourself in my shoes. I'm the captain of the team, and faced with finding a reason for Zar to keep playing. He's already torn his meniscus and is facing a tedious rehab program. Even when he is back to 100 percent, he stands little chance of seeing any significant game-time. While he already had an incredible GPA (Phi Betta Kappa with a 3.92) and completed 20 hours of lab work every week, it wasn't as though he couldn't have found something other than football to fill out his day.
So what reason can you give someone like that to keep playing?
The sanctity of college football, of course!
The lessons it teaches our scholar-athletes.
The internal rewards of a difficult, thankless job done well.
The same lessons we've been preaching while condemning the Newton allegations.
Believe it or not, in certain places, there is a beauty to the scholar-athlete. It isn't just rhetoric. While the system breaks down from time to time, we need to pay attention to the instances where it works. If we don't, then how will we know what we're fighting for in the first place?
The lessons that college football, and college athletics on the whole, teach our athletes extend way beyond the field. This isn't to say the system can't be improved (it absolutely can and should be), but rather to say that it serves a definite purpose.
Take Zar's response when the Rhodes interviewers asked him why he played football.
"I talked about how the challenges I faced with football have given me intangible skills that show up in my other work," he said. "When other students are complaining about 9 a.m. classes, I can just smile knowing I have been up since 6 a.m., when I crossed the river in zero-degree weather to work out."
Without the learned discipline of college football, maybe Zar dozes off in that morning class. In a field such as neurosurgery, in which the margin of error is slimmer than the width of a dollar bill, I'll take the doctor with that kind of resolve -- a resolve learned through amateur athletics.
After his last collegiate game, Cam Newton stands to start a lucrative pro career, including the trappings to be found in popular rap songs: money, fame, women, etc. After Zar's last college game, he got his first and only varsity letter, a commemorative tie and a handshake on the way out.
Newton will deservingly win the Heisman on Saturday night. He will be remembered for the impact he made on college football.
Zar (and all of the patients his neurological research and work will affect) will remember the impact that college football made on him. And isn't that the point?
After captaining the 2009 Harvard Football team, Carl Ehrlich played professional football for the Valencia Firebats of Spain. Since hanging up his cleats, he has been filling up his passport doing humanitarian work in Southeast Asia. In addition to his travel notebooks, he has previously written for ESPNBoston.com and the New York Times.